Truth is, as the saying goes, stranger than fiction.
And for the two Edith Beales — the aunt and first cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis — their lives became the basis for two entertainments, a Broadway musical in 2006 and three years later, a television film starring Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore.
Until now, the truths behind these stories was only captured by Albert and David Maysles in their 1975 documentary, a project that initially began with Lee Radziwill a few years before. After Radziwill — the sister of Jacqueline — engaged photographer Peter Beard to shoot footage with the Beales in 1972, the project was shelved, and the original material thought lost forever. Now it has been discovered, restored and reassembled into the compelling documentary That Summer by Göran Hugo Olsson and Per K. Kirkegaard. What a wonder for anyone familiar with these women to experience this new view into their challenges and tragedies.
If the 1975 documentary presents “Big Edie” and “Little Edie” as eccentric characters they create for the camera, the lost footage captures the mother and daughter before they realize people might find their story interesting. With Beard behind the lens, the two Edies appear unaware of the camera’s presence in their dilapidated mansion that has fallen on hard times. Like a guest at a dinner party, Beard welcomes himself into the Beales’ home and lives, cherishing each intimate moment his camera preserves, as the two women recall happiness once experienced, joy so long ago ended, and a present dominated by many cats, significant amounts of garbage, and unwelcome interference by local officials of East Hampton, N.Y. No one knows what to do with Grey Gardens, the house where the women insist on living. And no one has any idea what to think about the Beales.
Radziwill tries. As the film poignantly reveals, she considers the filming to be an ideal way capture the magic the ladies once represented, while finding herself overwhelmed by the conditions in which they live. She enlists the financial support of her brother in law — Aristotle Onassis, the husband of Jackie — to repaint, rewire and refurbish the house for her cousin and aunt. At the same time, she sits down for extended conversations with the women, to learn from them, remember with them, and capture their unique views of worlds long gone by.
These scenes — as Radziwill talks with her aunt and cousin — are especially touching as the visitor shows respect for the realities the women share while probing for their truths. The moments when the two Edies seem to forget the camera is watching then transport us, with them, to other places and times. Suddenly we are inside their world, viewing the house they love, its contents and memories, through their eyes. Camera and subjects become one as they look to the future, remember the past and endure the day-to-day challenges of preserving a world only they understand.
Yes, truth can be stranger than fiction. Thanks to That Summer, we share a truthful look at two extraordinary women who would later fill stage and screen with their stories. Now we know more narratives that ring true.
Film Nutritional Value: That Summer
- Content: High. The inventive work of moviemakers Göran Hugo Olsson and Per K. Kirkegaard brings the original footage of Peter Beard into a bright new view of the lives of Edie Beale and Edie Beale.
- Entertainment: High. Olsson and Kirkegaard offer a fascinating look at intimate moments this mother-and-daughter share, seemingly oblivious to the fact they are being filmed for a documentary that would never be completed.
- Message: High. For any history, history or film buff, That Summer offers a rare behind-the-scenes look at characters later portrayed on stage and screen.
- Relevance: High. Any opportunity to savor the lives of interesting people is relevant.
- Opportunity for Dialogue: High. You and your children — especially those who enjoy history or have seen the other films about the Beales — will find this recently discovered footage impossible to forget.
That Summer runs 1 hour and 20 minutes. It is not rated and is appropriate for family viewing. The film is available in theaters and on demand. 5 Popcorn Buckets.
Casting By: Entertaining behind-the-scenes movie tour
A good documentary, like That Summer, can make even the routine moments in people’s lives compelling when the camera reaches inside the people it captures.
At first glance, a documentary about the movie business may sound routine. After all, how many visits do we need to Hollywood to see what happens behind the silver screen? How often have we, over the years, watched documentaries about those who make movies? Leave it to master documentarian Tom Donahue — in the wonderfully entertaining Casting By — to find a fresh story, frame it with famous faces, and focus on a less familiar dimension of the film world.
When we go to the movies, we travel to new worlds filled with people. While we may think that actors simply arrive on the set, behind-the-scenes professionals make those casting decisions. Of the people doing this work, most consider the late Marion Dougherty the queen of the profession who, according to many, created this line of work. With roots in theater and early television, Dougherty brought a shrewd eye for talent and a keen insight for material to some of the most famous casting decisions in Hollywood history.
Consider, for a moment, how Dustin Hoffman shined in The Graduate, how perfect Robert Redford and Paul Newman were as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid or how beautifully cast we consider every Woody Allen film. With great care, Dougherty brought fresh thinking to every project she pursued, a tradition that endeared her to such legendary directors as Martin Scorsese and Clint Eastwood and others.
With the care of an archivist, and the creativity of a master filmmaker, Donahue brings a marvelous sense of “wow” to how he tells this story. He makes the most of his access to a vast collection of movie greats — from Redford to Midler to Eastwood — without letting the personalities overwhelm the narrative. Because he gives sufficient airtime to tell each story, we get to know the magic this woman created. How touching it is to hear Midler, for example, remember her experiences as an extra in the film Hawaii and the encouragement she received from Dougherty to pursue her dreams. And how much fun we have when Donahue reminds us of the bold casting moves when Dustin Hoffman starred in The Graduate and Midnight Cowboy, and when Redford became the Sundance Kid when most considered him the ideal Butch Cassidy. The film satisfies and teases us with each morsel of movie candy.
Of course, any documentary this satisfying must leave a lot of footage behind and, as Donahue explained at the New York Film Festival, he had to help some Hollywood luminaries understand why their stories would not make the final cut. By focusing on stories we can’t wait to hear, and giving us the chance to hear from people who seldom appear in documentaries, Donahue opens a door to a fascinating dimension of the movie business. He enhances how we appreciate the subtleties in every casting decision through the eyes of such legends as Bridges, Travolta and Hoffman, as well as Dougherty herself in an interview before her death. The director beautifully uses their commentaries to personalize the casting director’s achievements as well as to ask a reasonable question, “why does the Academy refuse to honor these professionals with Oscars?” Hopefully, the film will reopen this discussion.